I was recently walking along the National Mall in Washington, DC, when I saw a family leaving the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. As they passed a trash can, the mother tossed in her empty water bottle.
Her son stopped in his tracks and his eyes grew wide. “But Mom! That’s recyclable! You can’t put that in the trash!”
The mom sheepishly fished the bottle out of the trash and scooped it into the neighboring recycling bin.
We’re so careful at home to recycle, reduce our water use, and save energy, often at the urging of our children. So why shouldn’t we use the same consideration when booking our family vacations?
Here at All Over the Map, we try to be mindful of our environmental impact when traveling, but it’s not always easy. There is no one universal standard to tell us which destinations or tour companies are eco-friendly.
Greenloons to the rescue
Our friends at Greenloons aim to take the guesswork out of vacation planning by offering tours that have been fully vetted not only for their environmental impact but for their safety, comfort, educational value and fun for the whole family.
From a Greek Isles Culinary and Culture Tour, to surfing adventures in Nicaragua, to turtle conservation in Costa Rica, there is something for everyone in your family.
Don’t like surfing? Want an option for grandma while you’re out biking? If there’s something missing, most of the tours are customizable, and private tours can be arranged.
All Over the Map partners with Greenloons
We are happy to announce that while Greenloons director Irene Lane is out vetting some new European tour options this summer, we’ll be helping out in the home office with booking tours and spreading the word about the fabulous tours they offer. And we’ll be trying to figure out how we can manage to get our own families onto their Antarctica wildlife expedition!
Antarctica wildlife expedition
Contact us for more information about any of the tours, or let us help you customize one for yourself.
The Coca airport consists of one large room with a filthy concrete slab serving as baggage claim. Outside the airport (that would be about 30 feet away) was a scattering of rough-looking men waiting for passengers to exit. Insects buzzed in and out of the open doors while the two bored security guards rolled sweaty fingers over their Smartphones.
Behind me as I collected our luggage with the help of the cruise representative was a perfumed woman dressed in very tall heels, very short white shorts and a wide-brimmed sun hat. I wondered where in the jungle she was going in that getup and was later told she was a Colombian prostitute.
Thus begun our luxury Ecuadorian Amazon cruise.
Earlier that day, we were met at the Quito airport by representatives from the cruise company with passes and plane tickets. They explained that our luxury ship, the Anakonda, was stuck on a sandbar but that they had rooms for us on their other ship, the Manatee. They assured us we’d still be doing all the promised activities.
After a short bus ride from the airport to the banks of the Napo River (part of the Amazon River Basin), we boarded a long covered canoe for a 2 ½ hour ride to meet our ship. As we buzzed along, we were greeted by two rainbows, bridging the wide river. Soon it began to rain; a hard relentless tropical downpour. As night fell, I clutched six-year-old Jeremy a little closer to me as we plunged forward into the wet darkness. Every once in a while, on the river banks, we saw the tall burning flames of oil fires.
The two crew members accompanying us pointed to what looked like a beacon in the dark distance. This was the doomed Anakonda, stuck on its sandbar for the past three days but with lights blazing in the moist darkness. “Just one more hour to go,” said our tour guide.
The odd couple boards the Manatee
When we finally boarded Manatee, we were drenched and exhausted. The only river boat operating on the Napo River, Manatee is a cheerful, slightly weather-beaten river boat. The cabins can only be described as miniscule. The dining room turned out surprisingly delicious, artfully displayed meals.
We quickly changed for dinner before joining other passengers (there were five in our doomed Anakonda group) and our guides for dinner. As we waited for our food, disgruntled mumblings escaped from some of the other passengers, one in particular, Mike from McLean.
Mike from McLean is a very tall and lean tennis-playing looking man in his early 60s. As we got to chatting, he relayed that he had never been on an adventure like this before. Indeed, for as long as he could remember his annual vacations have been spent with his wife on a ship off St. Barth where the crew outnumbers the guests and where dressing for dinner is de rigueur. Let’s just say he was not too happy about the turn of events. Not only was he not aboard the luxury ship he had booked, he now had to share a room with a stranger since the boat was otherwise full.
As we were having pre-dinner drinks, we found him talking with the ship captain in hushed tones about just needing to rebook his flight and trying to leave the next day.
As if to provide contrast, we shared a dinner table with Mike’s new roommate, Mr. Adventure himself—an American journalist and explorer who lives in Australia and offers tours to Antarctica when he’s not climbing some of the world’s greatest peaks. Howard became an instant friend to the boys, especially Jacques, who generally would rather die than have an actual conversation with an adult. Needless to say, Howard had a roll-with-it attitude—Oscar to Mike’s Felix.
The buzz of the jungle
The Ecuadorian Amazon basin (known as the Oriente) is one of the most biodiverse region in the world. Its main river, the Napo, and tributaries are full of piranhas and caymans, pink Amazonian dolphins, and even the elusive Amazonian manatee. It is also home to 50% of the country’s mammals.
Yasuni National Park is a 9,620 sq km area of wetlands, marshes, swamps, lakes, rivers and tropical rainforest. Over 600 bird species, 150 species of amphibians, 121 species of reptiles, 100,000 different species of insects, and 117 bat species make their home there. In 1989, it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which is defined by the U.N. as, “An area of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems promoting solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.”
For the next two days, we toured the jungle on foot, canoed down tributaries, visited a native indigenous village interpretation center, and took night hikes.
Our favorite sightings were probably the monkeys, and we got to see several species in just a few days, including squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, duski titi monkeys, and a species endemic only to Yasuni, the golden mantled tamarind.
One of the highlights was a visit to the parrot clay lick, which is located inside Yasuni national park. The clay lick contains rich nutrients which help the birds’ digestion and is a natural feeding trough for parrots and Macaws. After a short hike, we waited quietly for over an hour on wooden benches—a bit trying for Jeremy and a couple of younger kids. All of sudden, we heard the sounds of hundreds and hundreds of flapping wings swooping in en masse from the top of the tree canopy. Among them were spectacular blue, yellow, and scarlet macaws, and dusty-headed and cobalt-winged parrots.
We also saw more large hairy spiders than you can shake a stick at. I should know, I shook a lot of sticks on our night hikes, where we not only saw armies of ants hard at work seemingly moving one side of the jungle to the other, but a veritable who’s who of creepy spiders, including tarantulas, scorpion spiders, banana spiders, jumping spiders, and wolf spiders. Walking along to the sounds of the nightly jungle insect cacophony and trying not to cling to our guides’ sleeves (too much), it became clear that this environment is not exactly conducive to human life.
Lessons from a remote childhood
Leading our expeditions were our two expert guides, Raul and Juan. Juan is from the Shiwiar Community, an extremely remote group of about 1,500 people near the Peruvian border. He shared stories about his upbringing using blow darts to catch the day’s meal and making toys out of leaves and sticks.
One afternoon, while the boys were getting restless waiting for a canoe deep in the jungle, Juan ripped off a long leaf, peeled it into four strips and, a few knots later, had fashioned a whistling helicopter toy, the type he used to make and play with as a kid. He then (geniusly) told them to be as quiet as they could to see how loud a whistle they could produce and how far a distance they could make it travel.
Juan learned to hunt when he was about five years old (he thinks, his community does not record ages), shooting monkeys and birds with his hand-made blowgun. He still has five of them in his village. In his family, the forest is a source of food and entertainment, and also a classroom for some pretty harsh lessons. One day, he was fooling around with his machete, throwing it at logs, when his hand slipped and he cut his brother’s foot badly. As punishment, his father crushed a chili pepper into paste and smeared it into his eyes. They burned for days and he learned his lesson.
Fifteen distinct communities make their home around the Napo River. While some are in frequent contact with outsiders, others have little or no contact with anyone, including other communities.
We visited several different territories on our brief tour, including Nueva Providencia, Limon Cocha, members of the Kichwa group who ran an indigenous interpretation center, and the Sani Isla Community. Our outfit, Advantage Travel, has been running tours for years and has built careful relationships with the groups. Fifty percent of their crew is indigenous, a fact that they are clearly proud of and that no doubt greatly improves their rapport and gives them entrée into the different territories.
The Yasuni-ITT Initiative, initiated in 2010 with the United Nations Development Programme, stipulated that if the international community donated $3.3 billion, the government of Ecuador would not drill for oil in Yasuni National Park or the nearby areas of Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT). Preserving this fragile and critical ecosystem would become the work of the world at large, and not lie on the shoulders of a developing country.
I’d heard of the Yasuni Initiative months before we left. It sounded like a radical plan to protect a fragile pristine environment. Yet it was clear from the moment we arrived in Coca and on our cruise down the river that the oil industry was already entrenched in the area. Wells were burning, roads were being built, and trucks and supply crates were being carried up and down river on huge barges. Just how much of the deep jungle had already been affected by oil exploitation wasn’t entirely clear.
The Yasuni Initiative was front-page news during our visit to Ecuador. The story was reaching a fevered climax as President Correa was going to make an announcement on August 15th. The verdict was in. “The world has failed us,” he said. World governments had not delivered the funds Correa had demanded to curb drilling. Oil exploration was going to begin. Sadly, to us, it was clear that it would not “begin” but merely continue.
I speak for the trees.
We spent our last night in the Amazon basin aboard the luxury ship Anakonda. The river had risen and the crew had spent all night getting the ship off the sand barge. It’s a beautiful ship, like a floating boutique hotel with spacious modern rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows framing views of the river.
We assembled in the chic lounge for drinks before our final dinner, toasting the Anakonda’s inaugural sailing, the crew for getting the boat back on the water, and ourselves for generally going with the flow. I raised my glass and cast a sideways glance at Mike from McLean.
He was chatting and laughing with our old sea-dog bearded captain, Fausto. I raised my glass to them and couldn’t help but notice Mike’s clothes were a little wrinkled. The humidity and close quarters hadn’t been kind to his jungle wardrobe. But he was happy, and he was still here.
On our last outing, I sat next to Mike from McLean on the canoe ride. I was looking out at the river, contemplating the trip. I thought about how lucky we were to explore one of the world’s most bio-diverse habitats with such knowledgeable guides, about the realities of growing up in one of the most remote areas, and about just how much is at stake when we depend so much on oil.
Mike turned to me and said, “I want to ask you something a bit weird. You know the trees Raul was showing us in the forest, the ones that attach themselves to a host and strangle it. I’ve been thinking a lot about them. And this is going to sound strange but…do you think trees have spirits? I mean, do you think they can feel pain?”
Like Mike, I feel transformed by my experience in the Amazon and was left with a lot of questions at the end of the trip (though maybe none quite as existential and trippy as his).
Our trip was far from the laid back luxury cruise I’d envisioned. It challenged us to consider just what our responsibility is in conserving the earth’s resources and biodiversity and the effects of our actions on native communities.
When we got back to Quito, its narrow cobblestoned streets and grand plazas were teeming with students and activists protesting Correa’s decision to proceed with oil exploration in the Yasuni. Also present were hundreds of policemen and women in riot gear. According to Raul, these are people who, for the most part, have never been to the Oriente and who naively believe, like I did, that it’s a pristine bubble of biodiversity, untouched by oil drills, supply barges, and shady characters in gritty oil towns.
So Mike, since you seem to think that I speak for the trees (and I am more flattered than you will ever know), I will borrow a line from one of our family’s favorite characters, the Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot. Nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”
On the one hand, the word eco-lodge conjures up visions of stylish earth-toned rooms made of recycled materials, blending in perfectly with its natural habitat. Not far to the other side lies a darker vision, of buggy, draughty buildings and compost toilets better left un-described.
Right before we left on our trip, I’d heard from pool friends who had stayed at Ecuador’s Black Sheep Inn that “the view from the outhouse is incredible.” The outhouse? And they’d be serving up big heaping spoonfuls of vegetarian organic grub. So like beans, lentils, leafy greens and the like. And an outhouse, you say? And, wait, it’s a compost toilet!? And I made non-refundable reservations! OK, then.
The boys and John were nothing but thrilled at the prospect of traveling to the Quilotoa Loop, a high-Andean region of Northern Ecuador known for its spectacular hiking. That we were staying in a rustic eco-lodge only added to their excitement.
We boarded the bus in Quito in the morning and a couple of hours later, arrived in Latacunga to meet our driver who would take us the 2 ½ hours to the lodge. After a series of switchbacks and dirt roads through the paramo, golden-hued high plains grasslands dotted with thatch-roofed huts, we arrived at the lodge.
It had been a long, long dusty trip and we were greeted kindly by the innkeeper, Edmundo, who gave us homemade cookies and a little tour of the property. The views defied description. Our room held bunk beds, a double bed, and a sleeping loft, and a sweet wood stove. Then came the tour of the facilities.
First let me say that you were right, Beatta, the view from the bathroom was stunning. What you failed to mention was that the room was swarming with flies which you need to swat away with a handy brush before sitting on the seat perched above the 10 foot hole lurking below. When you’re done with your business, you simply ladle a few scoops of old tree bark into the hole and shut it. Voila.
Do you hear that sound? I am know taking off my travel blogger glasses, the ones that, like Eric Idle, usually allow me to “always look at the bright side of life,” the ones that keeps me sane traveling the world with three very high energy boys and husband.
Once Edmundo took his leave and the boys went off exploring, I looked at my husband and broke into loud snotty tears. “I don’t know that I can—sob—do this. The toilet—what if I have to—sob—go in the middle of the night? I always have to go at least—sob–once!!!” John is rarely speechless. Here was his response: “……——-….?”
A good night’s sleep, with just one scary nighttime visit to the facilities, left me feeling better. We met a few people at breakfast (all meals at Black Sheep Inn are communal), including a lovely feisty lady from Long Island, with whom we decided to share a ride to Quilotoa Lake. We hiked down to the lake and rode mules back up, while she hiked the five hours back to the lodge (I said feisty, didn’t I?)
We spent the next day hiking an exhilarating trail, mapped out by Edmundo, that took us careening down ravines and perched on very narrow crags through some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop
After a quick round of Frisbee golf among the resident llamas, we left for a three-hour horse ride in the cloud forest.
Horse ride in Ecuador’s cloud forest
Through all the natural beauty and kind of exhausting activity, I managed to almost, I said almost, forget the toilet issue.
That night at dinner, we welcomed some new guests, including a very excited young woman from England who was on day three of a four-month South America gap/trek/odyssey with her rather quiet (resigned?) boyfriend. She talked at great length about their itinerary. They were going to Machu Picchu next and making their way down to Buenos Aires.
Then she looked at me and said, in a low voice, “So how scary are the toilets here? Have you used them?” I’m not sure, but I might have noticed a glint of a tear in her eyes. I took her hands and said, “You just learn not to think about it. It’s the only way to make it here.”
She went on to tell me that she was so worried about toilets on the Inca Trail that she had purchased and packed a pink Shewee. (According to the product’s website, The Shewee , the portable urinating device, is a moulded, water repellent plastic funnel that allows women to urinate whilst standing or sitting). She said this a bit loudly (remember, she was VERY excited about her trip) and some of the gentlemen at the table suddenly had to tie their shoes or, in John’s case, help one of the boys cut something on their plate.
The next morning, after bidding a fond farewell to the llamas and taking a few rides on the zipline, we bid goodbye to Edmundo and the Black Sheep Inn. I’m ashamed to say that this city slicker’s no convert to the compost toilet but I survived, thanks to breathtaking scenery and a gracious host. And I hope my young British friend survived her trek as well, with a little help from her Shewee.
As they’ve gotten older our boys have become increasingly suspicious of big cities. If we spend too much time in one, they become twitchy and agoraphobic. So lately, we’ve largely avoided metropolitan areas. But on our summer trip to Ecuador, we used Quito as a base between excursions and ended up spending four nights there, with nary a twitch.
It doesn’t hurt that Quito is an astoundingly beautiful colonial city, with Andean views around every bend, that the climate is ideal, and that it’s exceptionally green for a city of its size.
Here’s what we liked best:
1- Parque la Carolina
Playgrounds? Check. BMX track? Yes. Outdoor family gym? Of course. Reptile zoo? Por supuesto. Paddle boats? Absolutely!
This large shady urban park lies in the northern part of the city and it truly has it all. I picked our hotel, Lugano Suites, a modern hotel that has large two-bedroom suites, because of its proximity to this park and it was definitely a good decision. There’s nothing like having a sense of outdoor space when visiting cities with our boys.
2- La Compania de Jesus
Yawn. That’s the response we usually get when we announce to the boys that we’re going to visit a church. But what if they could go “behind the scenes,” climb up steep narrow candlelit staircases like the diminutive monks that they are, and emerge above the church, the plaza, and the pigeons below? Well, then you’ve got an adventure. We were lucky with our timing because La Compania de Jesus’ cupola is only open to visitors during the month of August.
3- Casa de la Cultura
Give me a good diorama over a computer display anytime. This museum has fabulous ones, depicting different scenes from everyday life over time in various parts of Ecuador. They also have a great display of Inca gold object, pre-Columbian art and pottery, and (less interesting to us) Spanish-era religious art. And it’s all free!
4- Parque El Ejido
The old-school safety-shmafety charm of this park’s playgrounds did not escape my boys. It’s right across the street from the Casa de la Cultura and they were ready to run around after our museum visit. They especially loved the zipline and the twirling chain cage (I said old school, didn’t I?)
quito plaza san francisco
5- Plaza San Francisco
In a city full of picturesque plazas, this one has it all: colonial architecture, church, outdoor cafés, and even the obligatory flocks of pigeons. The plaza’s Café Tianguez serves up traditional Ecuadorian food, such as the delicious hearts of palm ceviche and strong coffee, and is a great place to pigeon/people watch. The attached craft shop has extensive inventory of crafts and artwork from all over the country, as well as world-famous chocolate.
6- Casa del Alabado
This small quiet museum in the middle of Old Quito is one of the best museums we’ve ever visited. It’s in a lovely renovated colonial home, replete with inner courtyards and stunning doorways. The building holds a private collection of pre-Columbian art and artifacts, some dating back 6,000 years. We spent a leisurely hour there with nary a whine from anyone.